Air Date: April 3, 1998
Microbes in Drinking Water (The Thirst for Safe Water Series, Part 1)/ Daniel Grossman
The United States has one of the best water supplies in the world, and some of the worst waterborne diseases like typhoid and cholera are just about unknown here. But, research now shows that new risks to drinking water can resist even chemical treatment, slip through most filters and make people sick. This week we begin our six part series: The Thirst for Safe Water. The series will examine the health of the nation's water supply. We start in Philadelphia where despite meeting all federal clean water standards, Living on Earth has learned there is evidence that certain disease-causing microbes are getting through the city's treatment system. Daniel Grossman has our story. (14:05)
Tax Code Greening Idea/ Alan Durning
Since April 15th is just a short time away now, folks who owe state and federal income taxes are getting ready to shell out. But according to author Alan Durning, there could be another way. Mr. Durning is co-author of "Tax Shift: How to Help the Economy, Improve the Environment, and Get the Tax Man Off Our Backs." He wants to overhaul our tax code, and instead of collecting a portion of our payroll and income, he says the government should tax environmental pollution and the depletion of natural resources. (06:00)
The Living on Earth Almanac
This week, facts about... Big trees. (01:30)
Chinook Salmon Scarcity Marks Puget Sound Wake-Up Call/ Keith Seinfeld
Around Seattle, there are so few native salmon left that Puget Sound Chinook, once the most the mightiest of them all, has just been proposed for the endangered species list. People are the problem for the fish. With rapid growth in the northwest, salmon habitat has been dammed, paved over and polluted. Now residents are trying to figure out how to save the animal that has symbolized their region. We have two reports, starting with Keith Seinfeld, of member station K-P-L-U in Seattle. (07:00)
Salmon Lose to Sprawl/ Christine Arrasmith
Urban sprawl is a major factor in the decline of the salmon since nature's waterway systems are altered by loss of wetlands and forest. Christine Arrasmith has the details on how development changes the water flows salmon need to live. (07:10)
One Round River
Gold expresses itself wherever water wells up out of the earth, and that occurs where there are mountains and rivers. The Blackfoot River in western Montana is one of these rivers. Made famous by the book and movie “A River Runs Through It.” the river that people saw in the movie was actually the Gallatin since logging and mining have ruined much of the Blackfoot. Now the river faces what may be its biggest threat. Despite some opposition, a giant gold mine is rising along its banks. Steve Curwood spoke with Richard Manning, who lived near the Blackfoot for many years, and has written a book called “One Round River: The Curse of Gold and the Fight for the Big Blackfoot.” (06:45)
Woodpecker Serenade/ Sy Montgomery
In New Hampshire, the earliest sounds of Spring are now being heard. Living On Earth commentator Sy Montgomery wrote to tell us that she's enjoying the cacophony. But, she says one of her neighbors doesn't like the percussion section. Commentator Sy Montgomery is a naturalist and author who lives in Hancock, New Hampshire. (03:05)
HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Daniel Grossman, Keith Seinfeld, Christine Arrasmith
GUESTS: Alan Durning, Richard Manning
COMMENTATOR: Sy Montgomery
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CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
The United States has one of the best water supplies in the world, and has eradicated some of the worst water-borne diseases like typhoid and cholera. But research now shows that new risks to drinking water can resist even chemical treatment, slip through most filters, and make Americans sick.
MORRIS: If you look at the range of studies that are out there and the estimates of how many cases of diarrhea and gastrointestinal disease are related to drinking water, it ranges from 10 to as high as 30% of all cases are related to drinking water. We're probably talking about millions of cases per year of disease.
CURWOOD: Our series, “The Thirst for Safe Water”, begins this week on Living on Earth, but first this round-up of the news.
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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Clean water is a basic requirement for public health. And compared to the epidemics of typhoid, dysentery, and cholera that plague many poor nations, here in the US we've pretty much done away with these ancient diseases. But even in affluent America, we still can't turn on our taps without some worry about what comes out. Toxic chemicals from industry, agriculture, and households lace some water supplies, changing the chemical balance in our bodies and increasing our risk of cancer. Newly-discovered microbes from animal and human waste infect perhaps millions of people each year. And even the chemicals used to kill germs can cause problems of their own. This week, we kick off a 6-part series: The Thirst for Safe Water, which will examine the health of the nation's water supply. We begin in Philadelphia. Even though Philadelphia meets all Federal clean water standards, there is evidence that certain disease-causing microbes are getting through the city's treatment system. Daniel Grossman has our story.
GROSSMAN: Chris Crocket of the Philadelphia Water Department spends a lot of his time here: an industrial area on the banks of Wissahickon Creek. Behind a chainlink fence surrounded by weeds is a sewage treatment plant.
CROCKET: We could go around to the other side of the creek, to a place that's actually below the sewage discharge, but you can't see the effluent.
GROSSMAN: The Wissahicken is polluted. Along its 23 miles, animal waste from farms, woods, and neighborhoods, runs off into the creek. And there's effluent from factories, sinks, and toilets, at least from this and four other sewage plants on the creek, which flows into the Schuykill River, a source of Philadelphia's drinking water.
CROCKET: There are periods or times when wastewater does make up a significant portion of the flow in the stream, especially when there hasn't been rain for a long time. That does present a concern for us, since our drinking water intakes are below areas where this tributary discharges into our rivers, which are our source water supplies.
GROSSMAN: Mr. Crocket is surveying the Wissahickon watershed for sources of disease-causing microbes, especially cryptosporidium, a protozoa that can cause everything from minor stomach aches and diarrhea to severe dehydration and even death.
CROCKET: From our preliminary work, we have been able to detect cryptosporidium in raw sewage and in wastewater effluent in our watershed.
GROSSMAN: Fortunately, the microbe has not yet been found in Philadelphia's treated water. But no one can say for sure it's not there. Cryptosporidium is notoriously difficult to detect.
GROSSMAN: Philadelphia gets its drinking water from rivers. The Schuykill and Delaware and their tributaries, including the Wissahickon. When they arrive at the intakes, these rivers are a murky mixture of untreated and treated fecal matter, agricultural chemicals, and industrial effluents. And Philadelphia's situation is by no means unique. Many Americans get their water from lakes and rivers that are polluted. And like most of these other communities, Philadelphia has had to resort to costly treatment plants to try to make its water safe to drink.
MULDOWNEY: The water is pumped up Belmont Avenue to two raw water reservoirs located at City Line Avenue. Now, these reservoirs, they look like big lakes.
GROSSMAN: John Muldowney oversees one of Philadelphia's three water treatment stations. At the turn of the century, Philadelphia had thousands of cases of typhoid and other waterborne illnesses every year, with hundreds of deaths. But in 1913 the city built one of the nation's first large-scale treatment plants using chlorine. The outbreaks fell off dramatically.
MULDOWNEY: The water flow then splits. And 58% of the water goes to the south side of the plant...
GROSSMAN: The process here is typical of water treatment plants across the country. Chemicals are added to the dark river water to make particles of silt clump together and settle out. Then chlorine is added to kill disease agents, and the water is then filtered through sand and crushed coal.
MULDOWNEY: And the remaining particulate matter that leaves the settling basin is filtered out of the water.
GROSSMAN: Finally, ammonia is mixed in, which helps disinfection after the water leaves the plant. By this point, says Gary Burlingame, who supervises water quality for the department, Philadelphia's water is as good as any in the country.
BURLINGAME: By all standards that have been set, whether by the Federal regulators or the state regulators, or internal goals set by us, or knowledge from research across the world, we meet all the standards and requirements that anyone has set.
GROSSMAN: But this may not be good enough. Research suggests that even drinking water that meets the current government safety standards could be causing widespread gastrointestinal illness, which can bring on diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. In November of 1997, Professor Joel Schwartz at Harvard's School of Public Health published a controversial study comparing water quality records with hospital records in Philadelphia from 1989 to 1993.
SCHWARTZ: Now, what we did in Philadelphia is, we took a measure of how much stuff is getting through the treatment plant. And we asked the question, well, if that goes up, is that followed by an increase in the number of people who have gastrointestinal illness?
GROSSMAN: The measure of stuff Professor Schwartz used was the cloudiness of the treated water. Water authorities use a cloudiness index to see how well their filters are working, because many kinds of microbes, including cryptosporidium, are hard to detect directly.
SCHWARTZ: And what we found was that indeed, when this sort of measure of water contamination increased, that was followed by two blips in the admissions and the emergency room visits for gastrointestinal illness of children.
GROSSMAN: Children 3 years and older were 10% more likely to make emergency room visits for stomach bugs when cloudiness increased. Professor Schwartz found a similar pattern for hospital admissions for children and for the elderly. He admits these correlations don't prove that drinking water caused the illnesses, but they are a cause for concern, especially since the water during this study period met Federal standards. And Professor Schwartz says his results may underestimate the problem.
SCHWARTZ: Very few cases of gastrointestinal illness drive people to the hospital, so we are looking at just the tip of the iceberg.
GROSSMAN: The Philadelphia Water Department's Gary Burlingame says since the time covered by the Schwartz study, the Department has significantly improved the quality of its water. And he says there's no clear evidence today Philadelphians get sick from it. The Department and the EPA are raising doubts about Professor Schwartz's research, saying poor quality data and errors in his methods invalidate the conclusions. But Professor Schwartz stands by it, and says his results are supported by a growing body of scientific research. One critical piece of evidence came out after a public health tragedy.
NEWSCASTER: Authorities in Milwaukee are trying to find out how a rare parasite, usually found in farm animals, apparently contaminated that city's drinking water system....
GROSSMAN: Until 1993, most water experts believed that waterborne disease had been pretty much wiped out in the US. Then, Milwaukee made national headlines.
NEWSCASTER: Milwaukee residents have been advised to boil their tap water, or drink bottled water. More from Beth Graham, of member station WUWM.
GRAHAM: Health officials know what has caused...
GROSSMAN: The parasite which caused the outbreak was cryptosporidium, which probably came from animal manure, slaughterhouse waste, or human sewage flowing into Lake Michigan, the city's water supply. Four hundred thousand people became ill, 4,000 were hospitalized, and more than 70 died. It was the largest outbreak of waterborne disease in modern American history.
OLSON: Milwaukee is looked to by many experts as an alarm bell.
GROSSMAN: Eric Olson runs the Drinking Water Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
OLSON: What that suggests to many of us in the field is that you could see a similar outbreak in other cities.
GROSSMAN: When Mr. Olson looked, he found that similar outbreaks had already occurred. Centers for Disease Control records showed more than 100 incidents in 32 states from 1986 through 1994. One episode in Georgia made 13,000 people ill. For Dr. Robert Morris, a leading expert on waterborne pathogens and health at Tufts University Medical School in Boston, the events in Milwaukee raised an even more troubling question.
MORRIS: I knew that the drinking water in Milwaukee was meeting the Federal standards throughout the outbreak. And so, I became interested in the question of whether this was an isolated event, or whether this was just an extreme manifestation of a problem that may have been there for some time.
GROSSMAN: What he found shocked him. In the 15 months leading up to the outbreak, Milwaukee children were nearly three times as likely to visit the hospital for gastrointestinal illness when cloudiness levels were high. These results are similar to what Joel Schwartz would later find in Philadelphia. This and other research suggests to Dr. Morris that gastrointestinal illness from microbes in drinking water is widespread in the US.
MORRIS: If you look at the range of studies that are out there and the estimates in terms of how many cases of diarrhea and gastrointestinal disease are related to drinking water, or what percentage, it's -- it ranges from 10 to as high as 30% of all cases are related to drinking water. We're probably talking about millions of cases per year of disease.
GROSSMAN: Dr. Morris says a number of different microbes could be causing the illnesses, although cryptosporidium, which researchers say is in water from about half the nation's public water supplies, is a leading suspect. Dr. Morris thinks it was at least partly responsible for the problems he found in Milwaukee, and that worries him, because conventional treatment doesn't get rid of the tiny parasite.
MORRIS: Cryptosporidium is an organism that wasn't recognized as a waterborne pathogen as recently as 10 or 20 years ago, and it's now emerged as a major concern. It's as if you designed something that can get through a drinking water treatment system. It's very small, and it's resistant to chlorine. And those are the ways we treat drinking water.
GROSSMAN: So far, drinking water suppliers are resisting the idea that conventional treatment is not good enough. Jack Sullivan is a top official at the American Water Works Association, the country's biggest water utility group.
SULLIVAN: You're talking about a fraction of one percent of the total microbial illness that occurs in the United States as attributable to drinking water. There are many, many thousands and approaching millions of people who are exposed to microbial contamination on a routine basis. By the simple measure of not properly washing our hands in contact with contamination, we transmit just an exorbitant amount of microbial disease.
GROSSMAN: One top water official privately discounted gastrointestinal illness as mere tummy aches, especially when compared to the scourges of the past. Often, a case of the runs is over in a day. But many public health experts say people with weak immune systems are in danger of more severe symptoms or even death. Young children, pregnant women, the elderly, people with AIDS, and people undergoing chemotherapy, about 20% of the population, are included.
GROSSMAN: If researchers like Joel Schwartz and Robert Morris are right, rivers like Philadelphia's Wissahickon Creek are washing virulent and visible germs right into the nation's kitchen and bathroom sinks. So far the EPA has responded primarily by proposing rules, expected this fall, that would cinch down the cloudiness and hopefully the microbial contamination of tap water. But Eric Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council says tweaking the old technologies simply can't get rid of the most recalcitrant organisms like cryptosporidium.
OLSON: The real difficult bullet that EPA has not yet bitten is forcing a change in the way water is treated in the United States. It would really require a fairly substantial revolution in the way we treat water in the US to shift from these World War I era technologies and into advanced water treatment.
GROSSMAN: Advanced technologies already in use like countries like France and Germany include ozonation, which attacks microorganisms with ozone gas, and filters made of fine synthetic membranes, which take out small microbes better than sand and coal. Eric Olson says water suppliers could update their systems at an annual cost of about $30 per customer. A bargain for public health. For Living on Earth, this is Daniel Grossman.
CURWOOD: Next week, we look at the unwanted byproducts that come with treating tap water. Research links them to miscarriages and cancer, and some health experts say regulators should do more to get these poisons out.
MAN: People drinking this type of water for 30 or 40 or more years have maybe a one-and-a-half to twofold risk of bladder cancer. We're talking in the realm of 4,000 to 4,500 new cases of bladder cancer a year.
CURWOOD: That's next week as our series, “The Thirst for Safe Water” continues here on Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: We welcome your comments, concerns, and suggestions. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. Just ahead, a proposal to green our tax codes. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. April 15th is just a short time away, now, and folks who owe income taxes are getting ready to shell out. But there could be another way. We're joined now by Alan Durning, coauthor of Tax Shift: How to Help the Economy, Improve the Environment, and Get the Tax Man Off our Backs. Mr. Durning wants to overhaul our tax code. Instead of collecting a portion of our payroll and income, he says the government should tax environmental pollution and the depletion of natural resources.
DURNING: The concept of shifting taxes comes not from environmental extremists but from mainstream economics. They say that the current tax system, because it penalizes us for working, for investing, for starting businesses, hiring workers, all the things that make our economy grow, it actually discourages those activities. But if we shifted our tax system onto environmental bads like pollution and natural resource depletion, we would discourage stuff we want less of and encourage things we want more of.
CURWOOD: Okay. Now, wouldn't it create an incentive, though, for the government to say keep pollution around so we can get more in the way of taxes?
DURNING: I suppose there's a slight chance that's true. You could look at the case of the US Forest Service, which because it generates a share of its revenue from selling timber has, at least in the eyes of conservationists, appeared oriented toward timber sales rather than all the other uses of public land. But you can also look at cigarette taxes, for example, and I see no compelling evidence that cigarette taxes have put the government in the business of encouraging smoking. So, there is a slight danger that you might have some strange action from government agencies. But overall, I think what we would see is that our conscience and our pocketbooks would be telling us to do the same things.
CURWOOD: Now, a few countries in Europe have implemented environmental taxes. Have they worked?
DURNING: They have. Six European countries have begun, gradually, to shift some taxes off of work onto taxes on greenhouse gases and some major air pollutants. The largest of these tax shifts in Denmark, I believe, has shifted about 2-and-a-half percent of government revenue from taxes on labor to taxes on pollution. At that level, you can already start to see the impacts in the reduction and resource use and a greater emphasis on hiring workers. I think we could afford to do a much larger tax shift. I mean, environmental economists have been saying for years that consumer prices don't tell the truth, that what you pay for a gallon of gasoline doesn't reflect the environmental costs of drilling it out of the ground and burning it in your car. And so, all we tried to do here was to make rough and very conservative estimates of what those costs might be, and assume taxes that reflected those costs. So we taxed the environmental damage roughly in proportion to its economic costs, and when we did it we came up with plenty of revenue: enough to eliminate state-level business taxes, sales taxes, and much of the personal income taxes at the state level.
CURWOOD: Okay. If we do what you're talking about, Alan Durning, what happens to the average person's tax bill? Goes up? Stays the same? Goes down?
DURNING: A typical middle-class family would see a small reduction in their taxes overall from an environmental tax shift. But it's going to vary a lot depending on their lifestyle and their habits. If it's someone who has an exceptionally long commute, then the increased taxes that will affect driving will offset the reductions in their income and payroll taxes.
CURWOOD: Now, what about poor people, though? If you tax something like gasoline, everybody poor who's working, they're going to pay more. How are you going to compensate for that?
DURNING: There are some of the environmental taxes that are pretty tough on the poor. Gas taxes are pretty hard on poor families who need to drive to get to work, particularly poor families that live in suburban or rural areas. So it would be important to offer rebates for low-income families for those of the environmental taxes that are regressive. Others of the environmental taxes, taxes on pollution coming from major factories, for example, that are quite progressive in their impacts -- that means they hit high-income families much harder than low-income families.
CURWOOD: Now, Alan, people don't always act in economically rational ways. We drive huge cars, one person, pay a lot of money for it. There are things that we could get cheaper or more efficiently that we just simply choose not to. How can you convince people to switch over to your plan when everyone grumbles about it but seems pretty comfortable with the present arrangement?
DURNING: It's the devil we know, and environmental taxes are the devil we don't know. So I think the largest challenge for me and for others who are promoting the dramatic transformation of our tax system is to stimulate a broad discussion among citizens, among policy makers, about what we tax, instead of this relentless discussion about how much we tax. You know, the personal income tax that largely funds Federal government today was introduced by the populist movement late in the last century, who were regarded as wild-eyed schemers and dreamers, and that no, you could never fund the government from a personal income tax, you have to fund it from customs duties charged on traded goods, as was then the case. And I think that small environmental taxes that have already been introduced -- the tax on chlorofluorocarbons, for example, permit tradings for sulfur dioxide introduced in the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 -- these may be the predecessors of major revenue sources a generation from now.
CURWOOD: Alan Durning is coauthor of Tax Shift: How to Help the Economy, Improve the Environment and Get the Tax Man Off our Backs. Thanks for joining us, Alan.
DURNING: Thanks for having me, Steve.
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CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; and the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com.
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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio. CURWOOD: Confronting the realities of trying to save Pacific salmon. That's coming up in just a minute, right here on Living on Earth.
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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm Yogurt, makers of pure all-natural organic yogurts and ice cream: 800-PROCOWS; and Church and White, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood
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CURWOOD: "A tree cannot grow in the sky," wrote the Roman philosopher Titus Lucretius in the first century BC. Clearly, he never visited the western United States. There seems to be no limit on how high trees can grow there. The tallest tree ever measured still stands in Coos County, Oregon. At 329 feet, the coast Douglas fir is taller than two Statutes of Liberty. The American Forest National Register for big trees gathers this kind of information each year. Volunteers measure candidate trees for height, girth, and crown spread. New champions are discovered all the time, but for overall size, none has yet to come close to General Sherman, a giant sequoia in California. Undisputed champ since the Register began in 1940, General Sherman weighs as much as 360 elephants. It would take 15 people holding hands to reach all the way around its trunk. But the largest living organism known to science isn't a tree. In fact, you probably wouldn't know it if you stepped on it. Six years ago this week, scientists reported the discovery of a fungus that covers 38 acres of a Michigan forest. The fungus weighs nearly 100 tons and is about 10,000 years old. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
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(People gathered in a crowd; many voices, some guitar)
MAN: Hello, how are you? Who's gonna be next up, oh!
CURWOOD: At Seattle's Pike Place Market, tourists gape as fish mongers toss huge silvery fish over the crowd between the display case and the fillet table.
MAN: How about a T.K.?
CROWD: How about a T.K.?
CURWOOD: It's a ritual built around an enduring symbol of Puget Sound: the salmon. Once so plentiful that school kids longed for the day they would be served something else for lunch, most salmon on sale here today is farm- raised, or brought in from the distant waters off Alaska, or even the Atlantic Ocean. There are so few native salmon left that Puget Sound Chinook, once the mightiest of them all, has just been proposed for the Endangered Species List. It will come as no surprise that the problem for the fish is people. With rapid growth in the northwest, salmon habitat has been dammed, paved over, and polluted. Now residents are trying to figure out how to save the animal that once symbolized their home. We have 2 reports, starting with Keith Seinfeld of member station KPLU in Seattle.
SEINFELD: There's a good reason Chinook are known as king salmon. It's not their distinctive black gums or their spotted blue-green backs. It's that they're the biggest salmon of all, typically weighing more than 20 pounds and occasionally reaching 100 pounds. They're strong enough to spawn in gravel the size of grapefruits on all the major rivers running from Washington's Cascade Mountains through cities and suburbs and into Puget Sound.
SEINFELD: Washington State fisheries biologists keep a count of Chinook on the Cedar River, where it enters Lake Washington in downtown Renton. They trap tiny fish in a cage as they swim downstream.
MAN: On the hour, we crank this thing up, pour em into the electronic fish counter here.
SEINFELD: After the count the fish are released. Biologists are catching just a dozen or so of the fry a day. Last fall, only a couple hundred adults made it home to spawn: less than one quarter of the number needed to keep the run alive.
SMITH: They need a natural river.
SEINFELD: Carol Smith is a biologist with the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department.
SMITH: They need a river that acts like a river. They need a river that flows like a natural river. They need a river surrounded by a natural environment, and that means forest that's supplying huge, large trees that fall down in the river and provide habitat.
SEINFELD: Instead, these tiny Chinooks pass through golf courses and housing developments. And here in Renton, a huge Boeing plant building 737s. Downstream they'll try to survive the swim through Lake Washington lined with luxury homes and marinas, and then into downtown Seattle's Lake Union and a manmade shipping canal. Finally, they enter Puget Sound with its industrial ports and fishing nets. All told, here in the greater Seattle area, more than 4 million people live smack in the middle of what Ms. Smith says used to be ideal salmon habitat.
SMITH: It's just an immensely diverse environment. We have mountains that are richly feeding rivers. We've got lots of rivers here because of the precipitation in the mountains. We have a great estuary called Puget Sound. And then we have great ocean out there. Unfortunately, the same qualities that probably make it fairly attractive for salmon have made it fairly attractive for humans as well.
SEINFELD: The clash between nature and a booming metropolis finally led the National Marine Fisheries Service to propose Chinook salmon as a threatened species, and that's triggered a scramble by state and local governments to find ways to save the salmon.
LOCKE: Life without the king salmon is simply unthinkable.
SEINFELD: Washington Governor Gary Locke.
LOCKE: And when wild salmon are threatened with extinction, our northwest way of life is also threatened.
SEINFELD: Polls show strong support for saving the salmon, and Governor Locke has committed his administration to the task. But even the Governor's own aides wonder how deep the support runs. Curt Smitch, a former director of the State Wildlife Department, is the man charged with assembling a salmon plan.
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SEINFELD: He's organizing the campaign on a white board in his office.
SMITCH: When we get into really telling people they have to change their behavior, we're going to see just what they're willing to do. And that's the debate that’s just beginning.
SEINFELD: Pollution from roads and parking lots and backyard pesticides will need to be cut. That could require millions of tax dollars for treatment plants. Water use in the dry months of July and August may need to be limited, and perhaps most controversial, development near streams and in floodplains might need to stop, even on private property. The Governor has asked local governments to draft habitat conservation plans, which Mr. Smitch's office will coordinate and then bring to the legislature for approval and funding. Any local resistance could be overcome by the threat of direct Federal intervention. Curt Smtich.
SMITCH: If we do nothing, then they have to come in and through a very regulatory top-down approach tell us the things we can and cannot do that are contributing to the decline of the salmon. Then it just ends up in Federal court. The impact, we believe, to the state would just be a massive set of injunctions, stop this, start this, and conflicting messages coming from the courts on what we're doing in our watersheds.
SEINFELD: In states such as Oregon and Maine, statewide salmon recovery plans have convinced Federal agencies to defer endangered species listing. And Will Stelle, the regional director for the National Marine Fisheries Service, says his agency welcomes involvement by local governments here in Washington.
STELLE: That is enormously good news, because the counties have the tools that none of us else have to do this job well.
SEINFELD: For instance, local governments have zoning and land use authority. And in the past local governments have balked at cooperating with the Endangered Species Act. But making this partnership work won't be easy. Oregon spent three years working on its plan, and Federal biologists recently asked for more revisions. In contrast, Washington's been working only for a few months. And even if they come up with a satisfactory recovery plan, it's not clear how much that will mean for Chinook salmon. Endangered listings haven't led to dramatic gains for Columbia River or California salmon runs. Carol Smith, a biologist standing in one of Seattle's rivers, says some rivers could see the return of massive salmon runs, but probably not in crowded suburbs like Renton.
SMITH: We're never going to have historic levels in a river like this. Because I don't see much hope in society ripping out Renton. (Laughs)
SEINFELD: So far, few voices are saying the costs are too high. But elected leaders are beginning to ask where the money will come from. And some of the traditional finger-pointing has already started among fishermen, developers, farmers, and loggers, over who shoulders the most blame and the most responsibility. By next year we'll know if leaders can even start to deliver on their promises to save wild salmon in the urban northwest. For Living on Earth, I'm Keith Seinfeld in Seattle.
ARRASMITH: I'm Christine Arrasmith. In the rural areas of the Northwest, the biggest threats to salmon are hydroelectric dams and logging and cattle grazing in sensitive watersheds. But here in urban Seattle, the biggest problems are the places where people live, work, shop, and play. Researchers are finding that when spongy forest floor and a natural canopy of trees are replaced by pavement, roofs, and grass, runoff into streams increases dramatically. And that can make the waterways almost uninhabitable for salmon.
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GRIFFIN: This is where our community has the Easter egg hunt for the kids, every year.
ARRASMITH: This stretch of Maplewood Creek near Ray Griffin's home outside Seattle used to be home to salmon. Coho, sockeye, steelhead, and maybe a few of the biggest, Chinook. But no salmon have made it up the stream to spawn for at least a decade. The banks of the creek are raw and shaved. On the far side is a bald, almost vertical slope.
GRIFFIN: If you look over here to your right, you'll see the whole hillside on that side there is all sliding down. It's all getting washed away at the base, and from now on you're going to see trees laying all over, in all directions, from losing their footing and sliding into the canyon.
ARRASMITH: Ray Griffin says that when it rains here, and this means Seattle, it rains a lot, the uplands become saturated almost immediately and the water runs off in sheets toward the creek. He blames this erosion on the parking lots and roof tops of strip malls and apartment complexes nearly a mile away. At first blush it seems far-fetched, but scientists think Mr. Griffin is right. Geologist Derek Booth, director of the Center for Urban Water Resources Management at the University of Washington, says that development concentrates the flow of rainwater and speeds up its movement through nearby open ground.
BOOTH: With the increase in pavement and rooftops, that water now moves very efficiently into the stream channel. And every time it rains just a little bit, there is more water in the stream channel. And when it rains a lot, there's a lot more water in the stream channel.
ARRASMITH: Dr. Booth says development can increase runoff by 20 to 50 times, and as it surges into streams like Maplewood Creek, all this water strips out the gravel and woody debris that salmon need.
(A golf ball is hit, followed by voices talking)
ARRASMITH: Just beyond the ravine by Ray Griffin's house, Maplewood Creek runs through a municipal golf course in a channel dug years ago when this land was a farm. With its smooth, closely-mowed banks, a golfer here might easily see the creek as merely an ornamental feature or a water hazard.
MAN: A real stream, huh?
ARRASMITH: Yeah. You don't think it's a real stream?
MAN: Oh yeah, I believe it. (Laughs) Just never really paid it any attention...[trails off]
(Flowing water; crows and other birds)
ARRASMITH: Long ago, the creek probably meandered in S-curves here, with lots of eddies, downed wood, plants, and slow-moving ponds. But forced into an arrow-straight trench, the water sluices through too fast for salmon. The artificial flows are especially high in the winter, when the Puget Sound region gets most of its rainfall. Geno Lucceti, an ecologist with King County, says that's especially bad for salmon.
LUCCETI: A species of fish like Coho salmon, which tend to spawn in the mid to late fall, early winter time period, are laying their eggs at a time when in this environment around here, those eggs are going to be very susceptible to flooding.
ARRASMITH: Scientists say the key to restoring healthy salmon runs to Seattle and other urban areas is to reduce runoff and slow streams down. For years, developers have built ponds to catch runoff from big storms, but scientists now are finding the ponds have never been big enough. They believe even more land would have to be set aside at each development to capture all the runoff. But builders say the ponds are already too expensive and take up too much land. King County developer Bill Finkbeiner says individual developers shouldn't have to shoulder the burden of a regional problem.
FINKBEINER: I think the regional solution is simply that all of the municipalities, together with King County, need to get together and cooperatively determine where regional detention is going to take place. Where regional water quality is going to take place. And where regionally you have the best opportunity to restore salmon habitat.
ARRASMITH: But the salmon are in trouble throughout the region because of the cumulative effect of thousands of individual developments. And researchers say individual watersheds can't be repaired with one size fits all solutions. Some argue that virtually every structure or parking lot should have its own holding pond, cistern, or trench. And everyone agrees that wherever possible, the best thing for salmon is undisturbed open space.
BURLINGAME: What we're doing is nothing.
ARRASMITH: Joan Burlingame's dogs navigate her tangled underbrush of bramble, logs, and trees, far better than people. She and her husband have left 3 of their 5 acres wild in exchange for a big tax break from King County. Ferns, dead leaves, and water-loving cedars cover the hillsides, which can soak up 6 inches of rain.
BURLINGAME: We've been, worked really hard not to disturb any of the soil. In fact, we even hand-dug our septic field. We didn't allow a bulldozer down here.
ARRASMITH: The Burlingames' woodland is a natural sponge and filter for water headed for Rock Creek, a still healthy salmon stream nearby. But their efforts alone can't save the stream. The region's housing boom is spreading out to these quiet forested areas, so Joan Burlingame also serves on a local council charged with making tough development decisions. The council recently approved a much denser housing development than has usually been allowed in the area, in exchange for a key piece of land being left undeveloped.
BURLINGAME: It's a tough compromise. Do we want to have that connecting piece to be able to connect all those greenbelts along Rock Creek and that drain into Rock Creek and the Cedar River, in exchange for all the traffic and the noise we're going to get with the 600 homes?
ARRASMITH: But for salmon to have any chance to survive in the Seattle area, this kind of compromise will have to happen a lot more often. Higher-density development in some areas in exchange for less or even no development in others. And in a region where nearly every neighborhood has a salmon stream, King County ecologist Geno Lucceti says that means some will be saved and some might have to be sacrificed.
LUCCETI: Our approach to trying to protect and restore salmon is to shut the barn doors, if you will, and keep the horses that we have. So that relates back to going out and identifying your good quality habitats that are still here.
ARRASMITH: But reducing the impact of new development won't be enough. Many existing neighborhoods and shopping centers in the Puget Sound region will have to be retrofitted at a cost of more than $200 million in King County alone. But officials here believe that's far cheaper than Federal controls that could be imposed if they don't reinvent a place for wild salmon in the urban northwest. For Living on Earth, I'm Christine Arrasmith in Seattle.
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CURWOOD: For a transcript or tape of this program, call 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988 for transcripts and tapes. Coming up, a man who says he would kill to keep his river clean if it would stop gold diggers. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Gold expresses itself wherever water wells up out of the earth, and that happens wherever there are mountains and rivers. The Blackfoot River in western Montana is one of these rivers. The Blackfoot was made famous by the book and movie "A River Runs Through It," but the river that people saw in the movie was actually the Gallatin. Logging and mining destroyed much of the Blackfoot, and now the river faces what may be its biggest threat. Despite some protests, a giant gold mine is rising along its banks. Richard Manning lived near the Blackfoot for many years, and he's written a book called One Round River: The Curse of Gold and the Fight for the Big Blackfoot. He joined us recently to talk about his book, and he started out by confessing how he got its title.
MANNING: I stole it.
CURWOOD: Stole it?
MANNING: (Laughs) That's where people tend to get titles. But I tend to steal from the best, and I stole from Aldo Leopold. Aldo Leopold some time ago wrote a wonderful essay called "One Round River," and he just came up with the idea that now wait a minute, what if our rivers were round? That is to say, what if the mouth of the river, the end of it dumped into its headwaters? So everything that we dumped in the river came right back around to haunt us again. How would we behave differently as humans? I think that's a vital question. And what I try to make or argue in the book is that they really are round, and the joke here is on us, that those things do come back to haunt us.
CURWOOD: This proposed mine, they've got a lot of earth to move to get to the gold, don't they?
MANNING: They'll dig a hole that's visible from space, which is true of almost all of the gold mines being built in the United States right now.
CURWOOD: Visible from space? What do you mean? How big is this thing?
MANNING: It would be about a mile across, and about three quarters of a mile wide, and about 1,800 feet deep. It's a very large hole.
CURWOOD: Now, you write that image lies at the root of the problem. What do you mean by that?
MANNING: In the specific case of gold, our idea is really what causes us to pursue it. If we think about it, gold really has no value. Its primary use in this country and worldwide for that matter is in jewelry, which is an idea. It's an idea of status, and it's an idea of what makes us look good. But beyond that, I'm more concerned with the idea of the West, and the mythology of the West, and the idea that the real landscape is being forced to conform to now by being remade into somebody's vision of the way cowboys lived 100 years ago, or the way mountain bikers ought to live today.
CURWOOD: In your book you make a rather interesting distinction between logging on one hand and mining on the other. Both of these clearly damage the environment if they're not done properly. So what's the difference?
MANNING: We have this buzzword in the environmental movement and in general these days: sustainability. And everybody is kind of searching for the Holy Grail of sustainability. How we conduct our lives in a way that can go on forever. And while there are all sorts of problems with logging and ranching and we know about those and we've dealt with them, we have to come back to a fundamental fact that both of those enterprises rest on the continued health of the environment in some way. In other words, you can't be a logger or your son or daughter can't be loggers unless trees grow in the future. That's not true of mining. Mining is inherently unsustainable. It does not deal in the life cycle. Its announced purpose is to go and dig up something that is dead and move on to the next place. And so, it belongs in a completely different category than logging and ranching.
CURWOOD: You write at one point that you have no interest in providing balance to this story. Hey, I thought you're a journalist here.
MANNING: Yeah, I am a journalist. I still am a journalist. And I don't think it's a journalist's job to provide balance. It's very much like a crime reporter trying to write about a mugging in which he was the victim. My body is made up of water and air, and when those things are fouled by the people in industries around me, then I'm personally threatened by that. And to not admit that I'm personally threatened by that is simply not being in possession of all the facts.
CURWOOD: You bring up the question of action against the mine. And you write, "I would kill someone in a heartbeat if I thought it could stop that mine." That's a pretty tough statement. Do you mean it?
MANNING: Yeah, I'm afraid I do. I don't mean that statement in isolation, though. Because and I thought long and hard before I wrote that, and it just came out of my keyboard one day. And then I had the decision, do I leave it there or do I take that out? Because I know it's going to cause controversy, and I know it'll cause people to misread the book, or to misinterpret it as a call for violence. And I"m not doing that at all. What I mean to say there, and why I said it that way, is and I go on to say, if it would make a difference, and I know that it wouldn't. And I phrase it that way because I want people to understand that the strongest possible action that anyone could imagine would be to kill someone to stop that mine. And if I took that strongest possible action, nothing would happen. There would be no scenario that I could imagine that would lead my killing someone to stopping that mine. That's how inexorable these forces are. That's why we can't stop these mines, or really can't think through the degradation we're causing the environment. Because these forces are set in motion by things that can't even be stopped or started by murder.
CURWOOD: What's the legacy of mining in the United States?
MANNING: The best way to answer that, I think, is to go up another fork of the Clark Fort River, of which the Blackfoot is one. And that flows 130 miles upstream to Butte. Butte's a mining town, and Butte is where our history of mining is written in a big way. And you remember, I described the size of the pit that this gold mine would be. There's almost exactly the same size pit at Butte. But that stems from mining that goes back about 100 years. It's a Federal Superfund site, as is most of the Clark Fort River. One of the most polluted places in the United States. That mining has existed for 100 years and still, still there are no solutions. There's nothing, even on paper, to say this is how we're going to deal with this issue, this is how we're going to clean this up. There are hundreds of such sites around the Western United States. The legacy of mining is one of severe problems and of problems that we simply haven't dealt with, despite the fact they've been on our plate for generations.
CURWOOD: Richard Manning's latest book is called One Round River: The Curse of Gold and the Fight for the Big Blackfoot. Thanks, Richard, for joining us.
MANNING: Thank you, Steve.
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CURWOOD: In New Hampshire, the earliest sounds of spring are now being heard. Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery wrote to tell us that she's enjoying the cacophony, but she says one of her neighbors doesn't like the percussion section.
(A woodpecker pecking)
MONTGOMERY: The woman called New Hampshire Audubon in desperation. This bird was driving her crazy. Every morning at daybreak the creature started hammering away at the metal flashing around her chimney. From the big bill and the black and white feathers, she recognized the culprit as some sort of woodpecker. Yet this was clearly no place for a woodpecker to excavate a hole for a home. Nor did any tasty bugs live in the metal. "So what's wrong with this bird?" the caller asked. "Is he just stupid?"
Far from it. Possibly, he was a genius. The woodpecker wasn't trying to make a hole. He was making music. The territorial love songs of woodpeckers, among the earliest bird songs of spring, are not voiced but hammered. Usually the instrument of choice is a tree. But this woodpecker had gone one better. By choosing metal as his drum skin, the bird had made a technological breakthrough, increasing the range of his broadcast several fold.
Happily, most woodpeckers don't hammer on houses, but neither will just any tree do. The birds carefully choose trees of special resonance, often hollow or dry dying ones. This time of year, you might see a woodpecker ascending a trunk trying out different spots, playing the tree like a xylophone.
Like song birds' melodies, woodpeckers' tattoos help them stake out territories, attract mates, and generally synchronize a couple's idea about nesting. In some ways drumming is richer than song. The repertoire of the hairy woodpecker, for instance, includes 9 different kinds of drumming. And unlike most song birds, in which only the males sing, in most woodpeckers the concerts are co-ed.
Downy woodpeckers have only 6 vocalizations, but 8 different kinds of drumming, each for a different circumstance. Dawn drumming calls for a rendezvous with a mate. Males drum to invite copulation. The great birder Edward Howe Forbush once wrote about how a woodpecker enlivened his visit to a desolate forest late one winter. "There," he wrote, "on a cold day with a piercing cold northwest wind rattling in the dry branches, a red-headed woodpecker in a sunny nook tapped away as merrily on a dead branch as if summer zephyrs were blowing."
No mere noise could so eloquently evoke warmth and light in the dark of winter. That's the music of the woodpecker's tattoo. Think of it as the drum roll announcing the coming of spring.
(A woodpecker taps, with music up and under)
CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery is a naturalist and author who lives in Hancock, New Hampshire.
(Music up and under, with occasional woodpecker tapping)
CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production team includes George Homsy, Jesse Wegman, Terry FitzPatrick, Daniel Grossman, and Liz Lempert, along with Peter Christianson, Roberta de Avila, Peter Shaw, and Julia Madeson. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau. And the senior producer is Chris Ballman. We had help from Jeremy Jurgens and Miriam Landman. Michael Aharon composed the theme. We bid a fond farewell to our associate editor Kim Motylewski. For many years, Kim's sharp eye for a good story and her passion for things that grow have deeply enriched this program. She will be missed. And we also take a moment to welcome Rebecca Grossman to the world. She's doing fine, along with mom, dad, and brother Noah. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.
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